Event ReportsPublished on Jan 31, 2023
T20 Side Event | Panel Discussion on “Empowering Citizens Digitally: Building Affordable, Accessible and Inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure”
The Think20 (T20) is an official engagement group of the Group of Twenty (G20) and serves as an ‘idea bank’ by bringing together think tanks and high-level experts to deliberate upon policy issues relevant to the G20. One of the seven thematic task forces that constitute the T20 is titled ‘Our Common Digital Future: Building Affordable, Accessible and Inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI)’, and will focus on the development and impact of DPI, among other tech-related issues. In line with this core priority area, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Kolkata hosted the first T20 side event on the theme “Empowering Citizens Digitally: Building Affordable, Accessible and Inclusive Digital Public Infrastructure”. The event sought to explore the role of DPIs as foundational population-scale technology systems that can help ensure last-mile service delivery and enable the development of newer digital applications and services. It also reflected on important learnings from the Indian and European Union (EU) experience of implementing DPI initiatives, with a view to exploring efforts that might be made by the G20 to mainstream the development of DPIs globally. In his welcome address, Nilanjan Ghosh, Director, T20 Secretariat, Centre for New Economic Diplomacy and ORF Kolkata observed that economies with robust DPIs have succeeded in creating more resilient social, economic and political systems, and therefore, are relatively more capable of ‘building forward better’. He pointed out that India has played a pioneering role in creating DPIs such as Aadhaar—the country’s foundational digital identity system— and the Unified Payments Interface (UPI). These have allowed India to implement key social protection schemes at scale, thereby, contributing significantly towards social and economic growth and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Strategies for institutionalising DPIs, therefore, could be a crucial step towards building sustainable futures. The panel discussion commenced with a few introductory remarks from the moderator, Anirban Sarma, Chair of the T20 Task Force on ‘Our Common Digital Future’ and Senior Fellow, ORF. He outlined the importance and utility of DPIs,  including identity systems and social registries, as the technological backbone upon which the digital economy is built. DPIs allow multiple stakeholders to build applications and solutions and enable a broad spectrum of citizen services to be provided at an unprecedented speed and scale. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war has in many ways driven home the importance of DPIs. Globally, in the last few years, there has been a marked increase in demand for DPIs and their development has now emerged as a key focal area for international collaboration and support. Earlier last year, the Indian government listed DPIs as a priority area for its G20 Presidency. Indeed, with the success of some of its domestic DPI initiatives, India is uniquely positioned to mainstream the discourse around DPIs into the global digital agenda. Against this backdrop, the panellists discussed some of the key structural and developmental issues around DPIs, and their sectoral uses to promote health, education, and women’s empowerment. Speaking on the impact of DPIs on governance, Nele Leosk, Ambassador-at-Large, Digital Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Estonia, drew upon Estonia’s experience as a frontrunner in developing DPIs within the European Union. DPIs rank high in Estonia’s national digital agenda and now in its foreign policy as well. The Estonian government reuses one digital identity across all government, public, and  private sectors, as they have similar needs, such as data exchange. Estonia is now also pooling resources, knowledge, and best practices with Finland and Iceland, and has established a government-supported foundation to develop and maintain certain digital public goods. Estonia also makes this know-how available to other nations—this model creates potential opportunities to engage with the G20. Estonia’s primary motivation of becoming an open, inclusive, and democratic country has shaped its digital interventions, and today, it is regarded as one of the more digitally advanced nations within the EU. DPIs, in particular, has transcended being a matter of national development alone, and now form the basis of some of Estonia’s international partnerships. With the Ukraine war demonstrating how cyber-attacks are increasingly targeting public and private services, it is crucial to build strong digital states that can better protect citizens. Elaborating on the qualities necessary for ‘good’, robust and secure DPIs, Vivek Abraham, Volunteer, iSPIRT, India, noted that one of the first things to keep in mind while building DPIs is that it should be relevant and necessary for the audience or market that is being targeted. Solving an identified problem automatically generates access and usage for the DPI. It is also important to ensure that DPIs are open and inclusive so that multiple stakeholders can participate and thereby increase its usage. When ‘non-exclusivity’—a key feature of public goods—is digitally reinforced, it adds to the robustness of the DPI. Building trust in the DPI is also necessary, or else the access and use will be impacted with people questioning how their data is being handled. With respect to the financing of DPIs, funding essentially follows the benefits derived from operating the platform. A high quantum of funding is currently available for building DPIs in developing countries, however, it ought to be kept in mind that DPIs are not necessarily functional universally, and may be operable in only those settings for which they were developed. With regard to the use of DPI for specific development sectors, Tirumala Santra Mandal, Associate Vice President, Research and Communication, Ikure Techsoft highlighted the importance of ensuring openness and consumer trust in creating DPIs for a sector as complex and dynamic as healthcare. National and international efforts towards building DPIs must be responsive to and accommodate community-based approaches. While DPIs can ensure the last-mile delivery of key services, their localisation to provide context-specific access to healthcare is critical to their efficacy. This also underscores the importance of promoting community-based approaches at major intergovernmental forums like the G20. If the G20 is to move towards the efficient sharing of data under a common governance framework, understanding the context of these datasets could strengthen the digital systems that use them, and enhance impacts on lives and livelihoods. Digital infrastructures and the transformations they enable have also helped shape the delivery of education, the creative economy, and the culture industries. Debanjan Chakrabarti, Director, British Council, East and Northeast India remarked that older paradigms of education had been on the brink of a crisis for over a decade, and this was further accentuated by the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the pandemic also fast-tracked the sector’s transition to a ‘digital first’ approach—enabling the substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition of traditional teaching and learning methods. As countries mainstream and institutionalise these changes, it is crucial that they identify and adopt the most appropriate technologies, and not remain confined to the most used ones. A blended approach is also necessary to initiate behavioural changes among key stakeholders—namely students, their parents, teachers, and academic administrators. Additionally, there is a need to further democratise digital platforms, and make them more easily accessible and available. The pandemic saw users in India’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, for instance, beginning to use digital libraries on an unprecedented scale. Increased connectivity and higher bandwidth could boost the use of online educational resources. In this context, two priorities that the G20 could work towards are helping mainstream edtech across the G20 through a multistakeholder approach; sharing good practices related to the use of digital tools and platforms by creative industries. Digital infrastructures are boosting women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship too, noted Anisha Singh Motwani, Founder and CEO, Havas QED and National Council Member, WICCI Arts Leadership Council. She pointed out, however, that five key pillars of the digital space need to be strengthened. The first is women’s access to digital platforms, where there continues to be a large gender gap in mobile phone use and access to high-speed internet. For women, sometimes the affordability of access and (lack of) safety of online spaces also pose challenges. Second, women tend to have fewer forms of digital identity than men, yet a change of surname after marriage could create multiple difficulties. Third, the number of women registered on financial apps is far lower than men. Sensitising women about these mobile apps and how to use them could give them a greater sense of stability and security. The fourth pillar has to do with women’s entrepreneurship: on one hand, digital platforms have enabled many women to launch an online business, but on the other, many have been forced to shut down as they lacked sufficient technical know-how. More institutes, programmes and training courses are therefore required to mentor aspiring women entrepreneurs in a digital age. The fifth pillar comprises a focus on imparting knowledge to women about how certain digital infrastructures could help boost their livelihoods. Varun Kaul, Program Officer (Digital Health) at PATH focused on the need for interoperable digital services and standards in the public health sector, emphasising that interoperability is most empowering when it is invisible – i.e. when services are seamless – for last-mile consumers. Therefore, the underlying data architecture, standards and design when building DPIs are crucial. For example, CoWIN was replicable in other geographies, and shareable among countries, because of its inherent design. India’s experience in creating a Unified Health Interface (UHI), and its ideation around a digital Health Claims Exchange (HCX), could provide useful lessons for the G20. The G20 nations might draw on Indian experiences to refine their approaches and interventions related to sectoral DPIs.  Watch the full session here.
This event report is compiled by Sohini Bose, Junior Fellow, ORF Kolkata and Debosmita Sarkar, Junior Fellow, ORF Kolkata.
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